The meeting, which was mandatory for every athlete from Harvard’s 41 varsity squads, is part of the University’s ongoing effort to be recertified by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 2007.
“Simply, the meeting’s purpose was to tackle the issue of educating diversity,” said Assistant Director of Athletics Sheri Norred, who coordinated the event.
The session, entitled “Community Building and Diversity for Athletes,” featured motivational speaker and former college athlete Elaine Penn, who discussed issues of tolerance, gender stereotypes and racism using audience polls and participation.
But several athletes questioned the motivations of targeting such a specific audience.
“I think the speaker vastly overestimated the level of prejudice that was present in her audience,” rower Jeremy N. King ’04 said. “The content of the event was unnecessary and, at times, insulting to Harvard athletes.”
At one point, Penn proposed a scenario—which she dubbed “subtle racism”—in which a biracial couple sitting in a restaurant is confronted by another patron who uses a racial slur.
King said that he and his teammates were alarmed at what he called Penn’s “absurd assumption” that athletes might have trouble identifying the use of a derogatory epithet as racist.
Other athletes also said they were perplexed as to why they were mandated to attend the session. They said they felt they are exposed to a broader spectrum of racial backgrounds than most other Harvard students.
“In general sports break down stereotypes,” football player John F. X. Connors ’06 said. “We’re exposed to a very diverse mix of people. The meeting would’ve been better geared toward the rest of the student body, who are exposed to much less diversity than we are.”
However, Norred said the conference was not held for the purpose of “converting intolerant and ignorant athletes.”
“Quite honestly, if we could have a conference for the whole school that would be great,” she said.
Still, athletes protested the targeting of their specific group for diversity education.
“A lot of athletes thought they needed to broaden their audience. They though that it wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but the athletes shouldn’t be singled out and forced to go to the meeting,” King said.
Norred said that the meeting was mandatory because last year—when the Athletic Department made the meeting optional for the first time—attendance was “pathetic.”
According to Norred, the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, comprised of representatives from all 41 programs, recommended the meeting be made mandatory again this year.
Assistant Athletic Director John P. Veneziano encouraged disgruntled student-athletes to express their concerns to the Athletic Department.
“Feedback would be extremely beneficial for future programs. We very much want to hear the student-athlete’s opinion,” Veneziano said.
—Staff writer Sean W. Coughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.